Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul

30th June 2017 | Somewhere between Losar and Chandratal

Day 1 | 24th June 2017

We left Gurgaon at 12:30 am. With a stutter: The one source of power on our 9 day trip (12V DC port in the car) wasn’t working. Great. So we called Myles support, and after about an hour of hanging up and being held up, and they asked us to get it repaired. Urrgh.

Our plan was to bypass Shimla (and go via Chail), because it being both (a) the last weekend of the summer break, and (b) a 3 day weekend, Shimla was expected to be one huge traffic jam. But we couldn’t skip Shimla, because it was our only hope of a finding a car electrician confident enough to fiddle with the wiring of an XUV500

So when we reached Shimla, we spent 6 hours first looking for a new socket, and then looking for a car electrician willing to work on an XUV. 6 hours because of great Shimla traffic jam combined with the never-ending construction work that will make Shimla even more accessible — Leading to more traffic?

After almost having given up hope of an electrician , we miraculously found a dude of an electrician called Vijay who fixed us up not even using a new socket, because apparently the only things wrong were that the original socket had bent out of shape, so no plug was fitting into it, and its fuse had burnt out too. We gave him a hefty reward for letting us have power inside the cabin, and moved on towards our first planned stop, Narkanda.

But then, the 400km/18 hours on the road had tired us all out, so we decided to call it a day when we reached Thiog, a small town 35 km before Narkanda. We literally crashed at a modest guest house called Pankaj Villa at 900/night/room. What won us over was its having its own parking lot.

Day 2 | 25th June 2017

We left Thiog at 8am, looking to make up for lost time on Day 1. We stopped for quick breakfast at a solitary tea & maggi joint in the middle of nowhere, and ate omelettes with local himachali buns. After crossing Saiz village, we saw the first amazing view of this 9 day trip in heaven — Sutlej river flowing with great vengeance, as if it had some dues to settle with the Sea.

We refuelled at Narkanda, and moved on towards Sangla, our stop for the day. Woohoo! The weather is getting cooler! And the mountains are losing their verdure! Kinnaur, here I come!

Wait. Lunch time. So we stopped at Rampur, the (much debated) last point before you enter Kinnaur. I read online about a place called The Little Chef. Do not eat here. Never had worse cooked chicken. The serving staff is not concerned with customers’ happiness, and we realized that neither was the manager. Plus, overcharging on water bottles is not something you do when you run a hotel so popular on the internet. So after a brief discussion on ethics and moral dilemmas, we moved on, for we had ground to cover.

On the way from Rampur to Kharcham, there are kilometres and kilometres of hydro power projects. The scale cannot be described in writing, but it is pretty damn massive. It doesn’t end at Kharcham though: it continues onward deeper into Kinnaur. But to go to Sangla you have to take a detour from Kharcham, and there is a 20 km non-road leading to Sangla (and then onwards to Chitkool). This stretch is the first of many testing your mettle as a driver, owing to its absence of road, presence of loose sand and gravel, and being only wide enough at most parts as 1.2 cars.

Reaching Sangla, we checked into Ashiana guest house, and quickly came back out and found a nice spot for watching the great Sangla sunset.

We went down to the temple/monastery at Sangla, which, although an architectural marvel, was shut and children were playing around in the campus. A little further down the path, we came across the Baspa river, where we learnt the locals practise trout farming.

River Baspa, a tributary of Sutlej, running through Sangla. It powers a 1300MW(and growing) hydro electric power station down at Kharcham.

We came back when it finally got dark, and went to our room for dinner. Dinner was light and homely, and the staff was really friendly too. Ashiana guest house cost us 1650 for 4 for a night, inclusive of the made to order dinner.

Day 3 | 26th June 2017

Today’s plan was to go to Chitkool, come back and then move on to Kalpa. We had heartwarming breakfast at the ‘Boudhist Cafe’. The sweet young lady cooks anything you ask — we had boiled eggs, pancakes, all kinds of teas, french toast. Chatting up with locals and tourists, we found out that Chitkool was like Shimla at the moment: Overcrowded.

So we skipped Chitkool, which gave us a head start for Kalpa.

It was a nerve-racking drive, again, from Sangla to Kharcham, but smooth as butter cream after that, thanks to the 30km of dams. We reached Kalpa after many ‘scenic beauty’ stops at around 12:30 pm, and went on to Suicide point, a cliff edge so sheer, I could not even muster the courage to look vertically downwards from it. Spent some time fancy-photographing and went back to Kalpa village for lunch.

Suicide point, Roghi road (near Kalpa) | Shot on Redmi Note 4.

Kalpa village is beautiful, the paved footpaths, the little food joints, the solar panels above the centuries old wooden cottages, the village temple at the centre.

There were countless food joints in Kalpa village, so we gave up and entered one without a clue to what we might get. Annapoorna. We got a local specialty, ‘Chilta’, a bread made from flowers, so — Score! Their red chutney was so fresh, it brought tears to my eyes. Kadhi, Rajma and Jeera aalu all cooked as if by granny back home.

Chilta, a flatbread made from the flour of local wildflowers. The flour sells at 20 times the price of wheat flour.

We roamed around in the village for the the rest of the afternoon, which was as peaceful as it was scenic, and then retired to Hotel Ashoka for the evening.

Hotel Ashoka had good food and an amazing view, facing east, for sunrise. The staff, though was borderline unscrupulous, and had attitude problems that I’m sure did not originate in Kalpa. Cost us 2250 for the night plus dinner.

Day 4 | 27th June 2017

This was the last day in Kinnaur valley, and we were all excited to watch the sunrise, and move on to Spiti now. This is also when the clouds started setting in, meaning no sunrise for us. So we picked ourselves up, packed our bags, and left for Rekong Peo before 7:30. Rekong Peo is a major town — the last such one if you’re headed for Kaza — and we had to get our jerry cans filled. So we got more supplies for the road, and moved on.

We crossed a cracked bridge at Akpa, which was not allowing trucks to pass, which we learned later to be the reason for no fuel at the stations of Kaza. Got off at Jangi, a tiny village, for breakfast. Oh the people of Kinnaur are so cheerful, you feel like talking to them and enlightening yourself for hours. But we didn’t have hours, we had to go all the way to Tabo today (Another 120 km). And we had stops on the way that we weren’t sure could be covered.

So we rushed on to Nako (Skipping Khab, which I did not take to very well), spent some time at the serene lake, where for the first time in my life I saw a complete circular rainbow. Then we headed on to the enchanting monastery. Do not miss going inside the inner chambers of the monastery, ‘enchant’ is a gross understatement for what the Lama’s chants in the incense-filled magic of the mural-covered walls of chamber does to you.

Nako lake

We were growing hungry by this time, so we landed at the possibly the most laid back restaurant in Nako. And that’s saying a lot, since Nako in itself is renowned for being a laidback village.

‘Reo Purguil’, the restaurant wasted about 90 minutes of ours, and I will never forgive that guy, no matter how perfect his food might be. Amazing food — like Big Chill level. But travellers who want to rush to Spiti do not have the kind of time they take. For people choosing to stay at Nako, though, I highly recommend Reo Purguill. Especially their hummus and Pita.

After Nako, we were only 35 km from Sumdo, the checkpost separating Spiti from Kinnaur. The drive from Nako — Sumdo — Tabo is so beautiful that it took us over 4 hours to finally make the 65 km. We reached Tabo after 7 in the evening, and were lucky to get a room at the last guest house. The host there was an ex-pro volleyball player, and much more professional than many of the owners/managers we had come across this on trip.

Luckily, the clouds had cleared away. So we headed up to the terrace, to gaze at the night sky. And I don’t know if many of you will believe this, but I’ll always remember Tabo as the place I learned that on a clear night: you could always look up at the sky for 60 seconds and be sure of spotting at least one shooting star.

Nima guest house: 2340 for 2 rooms + dinner for 4.

Quick thinking, intelligent staff, prompt service, and brilliant food, again.

Day 5 | 28th June 2017

We got up early, because we had some exploring to do. The monastery at Tabo was built in 996 AD, so just being there gives you a sense of being a part of a grand history, much bigger than yourself. The immaculate murals here have begun chipping off though, and it is a shame nothing can be done to it without causing harm to the original charm.

The Tabo monastery campus.

We left for Kaza immediately after breakfast. The clouds were back, so there were no more blue skies for us. There were, however, entire mountains of gravel along the long drive along the muddy spiti river. The Spiti flows as if Sutlej, from Khab, has signalled that it can’t wait to meet. This place was so uncannily beautiful that the happiness at just looking around drove us crazy. It forced us to come up with some really ridiculous questions about life, the universe, and the idea of happiness.

On the way, some good samaritans passing us by in the opposite direction pointed at our numberplate, so we stopped, to see that it was hanging by just one screw, that too very loose. We took it off, kept it under the front seat, and moved on.

A lot of people just randomly stop by the road to take pictures of the landscape that Windows wallpapers will be jealous of. We stopped behind one such Tempo Traveller, and asked the driver if he had a screwdriver to screw our license plate back on. Meet 21 year old Jeet Thakur, driving his own Traveller (loaded with Marathi college kids) from Chandigarh to Manali, via Kaza. He came back out of the front with an entire toolkit, one that could arguably put an entire 4x4 together. Easily screwing the plate back on, no sweat. He found a friend in us, joked about an obese passenger, and we headed on.

Despite the many picturesque stops, we made it to Kaza around noon and checked in to Mandala guest house — 1500 for one room, 4 people.

Headed on to a quaint little cafeteria by the name of ‘The Taste of Spiti’ (which I recommend to each one of you reading this), and left for Langza — Hikkim — Komic.

The ascent from Kaza to Langza is very steep, gaining about a kilometre in altitude within 30km of barren landscape. The drive, although scenic, is quite tricky, with bends upon bends of narrow ledges.

The view of Spiti’s river bed, en route Langza. The road to Langza is tricky, but rewarding to say the least. The mountains are mostly loose sand and stone, which explains why the river is so muddy. On the right side of the river, you can see the road coming up from Kaza.

The temperature drops as rapidly as you climb, and I advise to carry as much clothing as you can for this drive.

Langza is the first village on this circuit, and when I got out of the car, I knew this meant business. The wind was whistling furiously against my peruvian winter cap, and I was cursing myself for not wearing another 2 layers (I was wearing just 4).

Hikkim is the village that houses the highest post office in the world, and you can buy and send postcards from there (which I haven’t heard anyone confirm reaching)

Komic is the highest motorable village in the world, and we spent quite some time there, playing frisbee in the meadows, sipping seabuckthorn tea, and roaming around.

Although no one wanted to go back, the shadows were beginning to grow longer, and the drive would have gotten tougher, so we resentingly came back down to Kaza, had dinner at The Himalayan Cafe (not worth it, sloppy job of a restaurant) and hit the hay soon.

Day 6 | 29th June

We decided to regress a bit, and go back a bit and visit Pin valley. Mudh village (in Pin valley) was 50km behind us already, but we still made that choice. And we have absolutely no regrets. No words, no pictures can do justice to the majestic valley. Added advantage if you’re into geology, know about mountain formations and rock types.

It was overcast, and drizzled all throughout the valley (35 km). This meant we couldn’t see the panoramic skyscapes that Pin valley is so famous for, so we kept our eyes on things closer to us. After crossing Guling, the first village in Pin valley, there was an overdose of — something so rare in spiti valley — flowers. More colours than I can wish to learn the names of, this valley could easily have been the valley of flowers.

The magnificent colours of Pin valley (left) — When was the last time you saw a purple mountainside?

On reaching Mudh Village, we hiked around a bit, up to where the ice cap was melting to form one of the many tiny tributaries of the River Pin. Mudh Village is famous because it is the last village in the valley, and some treks begin from here. One of them end on the other side of the Parvati mountain, in a place that a lot of you might be familiar with — Kheerganga.

Tara cafe at Mudh, Pin valley

We had our breakfast at Tara’s at Mudh village, and I would recommend the Cheese parantha to anyone who makes it that far, regardless of their diet plan. I recommended it to a bunch of middle aged men from Delhi, who were considering what to eat. They thanked me personally later, when I bumped into them at Chandratal.

We came back to Kaza, checked out of the guest house, and then moved on to our next stop:

Kee monastery — 1000 yrs old, burnt down and rebuilt quite some times. They have all the original parchments of the Buddhist scriptures after they were translated into the Bodhi tongue from Nepali and Sanskrit. A monk gave us a refreshing cup of steaming seabuckthorn tea, too. It’s part of the Buddhist culture, to offer a drink of water or tea to anyone who comes to visit. Generosity is the most cherished value for them, and greed the worst.

Next stop was Kibber, where we had lunch at a certain Norling guest house, with an open cafe facing heaven. They were out of Israeli food, and the Israelis there were eating indian. Good pizza though, and the guy running the place seemed like an important hustler.

Onwards to Losar, we spotted a huge herd of ibex! So that took up about 30 minutes. Although common to this area, the ibex are very hard to spot owing to their colour, which exactly matches the backdrop. It was only thanks my cousin’s keen eye that we stopped and investigated what he thought was some ‘movement’.

Reached Losar by Sun-down, and checked into Zambala guest house, where we got a 4-bed hall for 300 rupees a bed per night. The place housed many foreign tourists, and there was a british dude who had reached Losar driving an auto-rikshaw. He was trying to prove to the world that you can cross Spiti valley in a ‘tuk-tuk’, and there was no stopping him.

We asked what we could get for dinner, and the middle aged woman running the kitchen sheepishly told us, yellow dal, and tawa roti. We were okay with that. But then came the actual dinner, brought in to our hall: an infinite tub of rajma, aalu capsicum, roti, rice, salad and papad. We ate like crazy, like north indians are known to, when served Rajma. Not a speck of food was left over.

Day 7 | 30th June

We left Losar at 9:30, and reached the camps at Chandratal in 3 hours. The road is treacherous, even for 4x4s. But the view is yet again, better than anything we’d seen before this.

There’s a guy called Jamaica (don’t ask him why), who we had booked our stay with. His camp and all others are 3 km by road before the Lake. You can drive another 2 km towards the lake, and then you have to walk. So we ate some protein bars and dried fruits, and walked the entire stretch from the camp to the lake. The landscape commands a short trek, in the very least.

Me at The Chandratal on an cloudy day, as captured by a Oneplus 3 phone, without edits.

No matter how many pictures of the lake you’ve seen, no matter what tales you’ve heard. When you reach the lake, you feel like a part of a mystical world, away from the ennui of everyday city life. The clear waters of the lake stretching out to infinity, the blue skies peeping through the ever hanging clouds, and the bubble of the streams emanating from the lake, all combine to give this surreal assurance of life, hope and tranquility.

It had to end, of course, with our trek back to the campsite, which was done in a gray silence, everyone anticipating the end of the trip by now.

We had dinner inside Jamaica’s own tent. Great food, once again, and conversations with local policemen who guard the lake. They had some pretty cool stories to tell, stories that will only lose their luster being narrated by yours truly.

Day 8 | 1st July

Left the camp as the sun came up, to beat the morning rush. Uhh wait. The sun. Yup. No clouds today! Yipee! Blue skies, wow so pretty! Nope. You know what it means when the sun shines after days of snowfall and rain in Lahaul? Read on.

The sky finally cleared — but it only meant more snow melt, meaning overflowing ‘nalas’

The road up to Batal was a mushy mix of everything the mountain could naturally offer: snowmelt, gravel and soil. Skidding and sliding all the way to Batal took up about an hour, and we felt tremendous joy at finally seeing evidence of a road again.

Deep inside I was already feeling sad at the thought that today was our last day in this district, as we had to cross Rohtang and stay at Manali tonight. But we had to do what we had to do, so we just made a quick stop at Batal at Chacha-Chachi’s for breakfast, and left before anyone else could.

But nature had bigger plans. There’s a minute village called Gramphu, where 2 roads diverge. One goes up to Rohtang pass, and the other takes you straight to Leh. 15km before Gramphu, there’s an even minuter village, Chhatdu (छतड़ू). And bang in the middle of these two villages, we met some debris. Overnight the sky had burst open to cause some landslides, beginning 5 km after Chhatdu. We knew that there were some dozen water crossings between Chhatdu and Gramphu, and we easily waded through about 5 of them, but oh dear oh dear. This? This was gonna take time. Luckily, there was a Dhaba (Dorni cafe), our mecca for supplies and phone network.

It is in times of intense distress, that fueled with an untameable sense of urgency, humanity spews out its finest virtues. 100 men and women, all peace seekers, hundreds — some, thousands — of miles away from their homes, came together as one, to deal with nature’s mockery. We cleared one landslide, built a pebble-ramp across another, pulled a trapped pickup truck out of a rivulet, raised the water crossing by filling it in, and made way for glory.

2 4x4s (Mahindra Thar) were required to pull a pickup truck out of the debris in the rivulet.

Except there were more. Bikers sent forth as scouts returned to show us will-shattering videos recorded minutes earlier. One little stream had outgrown its crack, and had washed away about 50 metres of the road. Carrying boulders the size of trucks, it was plain unstoppable. Some locals told us it would take 4 days to patch it up, and went back, all the way to Kaza. Some drivers sent forth their passengers, telling them to catch a bus from Gramphu, a mere 9km away. Some tourists went on with their vehicles, to see for themselves how bad it was. Only to be trapped in a landslide prone area for the night without food and shelter.

We had to make a choice now, as it was getting dark, between waiting it out (for BRO to somehow magically clear the mess up) and making it all the way back to Shimla. Either way would have added 3 days to our trip, at least. All when we were just 25 km from Rohtang pass, our exit.

We were 4 tempo travellers and 7 cars. The tempo travellers had mostly sent their passengers on to Gramphu, on foot. We car owners couldn’t do that though. Some veteran drivers, some straight-outta-college kids. 3 vehicles from Ludhiana, 4 from Delhi. All at the same crossroads. And we decided to wait, using Dorni cafe as our base.

We had company, though

So Jeet (yes, he was here too) was the one in constant correspondence with folks in Manali, Rohtang and Gramphu. He was the knowledgeable local among us. He drew maps in the dust with his boot to explain exactly where the problem was, he pointed to Gramphu-Leh (Manali — Leh) highway that was only 9km away from us, and plainly visible in the clear Lahaul air. At night, we saw hundreds of headlights moving on that highway, meaning that the road from Gramphu to Rohtang was clear.

Word from Manali was, the BRO was going to start clearing it up tomorrow morning. Tomorrow being a Sunday though, we weren’t exactly optimistic. We had nothing in the world to do, but wait. Wait until at least ONE vehicle came from Gramphu, signalling that there was now motorable passage.

So as the sun went down, we ate the heartiest plate of masoor dal and rice, and we slept. Some in cars, some in the open, some under makeshift tents, and others in the travellers.

Day 9 | 2nd July

Sleep was troubled, but let me assure you, a 5 am dump in the open mountains at 11000 feet, over golf-course grade ibex fodder, is a dump to remember.

8 girls from one of the travellers were nowhere to be seen. On asking around, we learnt that some army men had evacuated them at 2 am because one of the girls was connected to the army. Well, good job, servicemen. This meant, however, that the army had a way in an out of this blissful place called Dorni. Then it struck us. What about the folks who went on till the broken patch last evening?

So here’s what we did. At 9 am, after our breakfast at Dorni, we set out. Past the manually cleared landslides, over the man made ramps, — until wait. Traffic from the other side! Which meant 2 things: (a) that there was passage now, and (b) that we had to rush, to make it before another traffic jam, in this landslide infested raw piece of the earth.

So 7 cars travelled together as if bound by an invisible rope, eager to help one another, through more cleared landslides, another half dozen rivulets, and straight into the arms of a BRO excavator, baby! The BRO had worked all night to clear the way. The officer at the checkpost asked us if we had enough food and water last night, and took a head count of every vehicle passing by.

And at Gramphu, as we struck asphalt, our joy climaxed.

Gramphu: The people who made it hand in hand across the landslides and river crossings, passing the test of nature with their grit, spirit and driving skills. Photo courtesy Harpreet Singh (I do not have the original yet)

And that’s how I’d like to end this story.

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